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Why We Crave the Food We Crave

Should you give in to your craving for certain foods?

The Buddhists define "craving" as "wanting things to be different from how they are." Not sure if that applies to food cravings but I believe there is a sense of deprivation associated with food cravings and often food is also used to provide comfort, reward or to fill other emotional needs. Cravings, however also have a biological basis. Food as well as other pleasures (music, sex, drugs, etc.) all work on the dopamine reward center. When we eat a food - especially sweets - animal studies show they have a similar effect on the brain's reward center as do the drugs of abuse. There are many theories as to why we crave the foods we crave.

According to one researcher, cravings are based on our ancestors past need for a higher caloric intake and she is not alone in this theory. Several research studies have proven that our minds are configured to seek out what our bodies feel we may need. When we achieve that need either because we actually need it or not, we are flooded with natural states of euphoria. Our mind then begins to associate the “reward” of dopamine and serotonin with that particular food.

Former FDA commissioner and dean of Yale’s medical school, Dr. David Kessler states that the better a food tastes, the higher the likely hood of these chemicals being produced will be. As time goes on, we teach our brains that these tasty treats will give us a quick “pick me up” and we start to feel those emotional pains of craving we all know so well. Dr. Kessler also states, that once these foods are eaten, we release more chemicals known as opioids. These opioids are what signal the emotional relief to our brains.

Once we have imprinted our minds with this association of pleasure and a specific sweet or salty indulgence, we have landed ourselves on a path of reoccurring cravings. This connection is hard wired into our brains and a simple picture or the drifting aroma of fresh chocolate chip cookies can send us scrambling for a bite. The task of reprogramming our brains is possible with some hard work, but with an understanding of what is behind those pesky cravings, the job is not impossible!

It's also important to recognize that food is a primal activity. It has deep-seated meanings that may come from events in our childhood when a chocolate chip cookie was offered to you every time you were upset, for example. Craving foods can also have metaphorical meaning. For example, the expression "food is love." Often without consciously realizing that we use food to supply love, comfort, a reward, we may have developed the habit of using food in this way. Next time you grab that chocolate chip cookie, ask yourself what it means to you.

So, you are probably asking yourself “How do I conquer these cravings?” Unfortunately there is no one set way of doing so but with these tips, you will be able to reduce your cravings.


Allowing yourself a small portion of the craving culprit will give you the feeling of accomplishment and you’ll likely be satisfied without overindulge as may be the case if you try ignoring it for too long.


Combing the less healthy food with something of nutritional value will make the snack less troublesome on your body and your mind. Adding a few M&M’s to your yogurt for example will cater to your craving in a less regretful manner.


Eat 3 square meals a day at regular intervals. If you put off eating lunch or breakfast, you may find yourself seeking a fast solution to hunger to get you through the rest of the work day and the cravings will kick in full strength.


Keeping fruit on hand is a good alternative. There are many fruits that offer the sweetness you are seeking. A bite into a juicy apple may be all you need to get past the craving!

· Change things up! If your routine includes a trip to the vending machine on the way to your desk, try packing a small Ziploc bag of trail mix instead. A smell sending you into a frenzy? Try leaving the room and taking a breath of fresh air or otherwise occupying yourself to take your mind off of the craving.

While, these tips are not fool proof, they are a step in the right direction. Beating food cravings, can be a difficult challenge, though one that you will feel great about being victorious with. Now get out there and kick those cravings!

More from Carolyn C. Ross M.D., M.P.H.
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